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Mushrooms

Wednesday, 19 November 2008 | Tags: ,

These mycological wonders add a deeply savoury flavour and meaty texture to any dish. Sautèed in a little olive or butter, with garlic, herbs, and white wine, mushrooms can also make a delicious side dish. We find out more about mushrooms, including how to shop, and forage, for them.

The Basics

  • There’s a wide variety of mushrooms, with flavours ranging from bland to very rich:

    • Button mushrooms are readily available, with white, smooth, dome-shaped tops and a mild to moderate flavour that is enhanced when cooked. Very reasonably priced.

    • Brown crimini mushrooms are about the same price as buttons and look similar but coffee-coloured and richer in flavour and nutrients.

      • A crimini mushroom is the same thing as a portobella (or portabello) mushroom, only smaller. Criminis grown for two extra days become Portobello mushrooms.

      • When recipes call for crimini mushrooms, they are usually referring to the smaller mushrooms around 2″ in diameter.

      • If your recipe refers to portabella mushrooms, look for the very large ones, around 4-6″ in diameter.

      • Look for mushrooms that are firm, plump and clean. Those that are wrinkled or have wet slimy spots should be avoided.

      • These mushrooms darken as they age, so choose ones those with a creamy, tan colour.

    • Portobello mushrooms are an overgrown Crimini. Easily recognized for their large, saucer-like discs measuring up to 3-6 inches across, they are very meaty and have an intense, uniquely rich flavour.

    • Chanterelle mushrooms are pumpkin-coloured and somewhat flower shaped. A chanterelle’s fibrous stem looks sort of like a cheese string. Their light taste is best brought out when sautéed.

    • Shiitake mushrooms are soft and brown with an open top, and commonly found in Asian dishes. Their chewy texture and strong taste is too much for some.

    • Morel mushrooms are hollow, cone-shaped, and covered with ridges. The flavour is very rich, very popular in French cooking, used in wine and cream sauces that tend to cling to the ridges.

    • Truffles are the “Porsche” of mushrooms. Found in woods throughout Italy and France, they are considered extremely rare, and their price reflects this: around $3000 per pound. They can be eaten raw, shaved on top of a creamy pasta dish, in a risotto or even in scrambled eggs. Many people reserve the experience for very fine restaurants, leaving the preparation to the professional chefs.

    • Shimeji mushrooms are native to Asia and North America and are also called pioppini mushrooms. They resemble oyster mushrooms and tend to grow high up in beech trees. Their stalks are thick, about 3 inches tall, and their tops can be mottled beige or white. Their peppery, nutty flavour lends well to stir fries and other vegetable and meat dishes.

  • Mushrooms don’t need any natural light and thrive in dark conditions. Here are some tips for picking fresh mushrooms at the store:

    • Buttons should be plump, white, and free of surface blemishes. If the bottom is open, it’s not fresh.

    • Portobello mushrooms are freshest when their gills are light brown. Black spots usually mean they’re past their prime.

    • Oyster mushrooms should have smooth, slightly turned under edges. If the edges are frayed, they’re getting old.

    • Shiitake mushrooms look drier compared to other types, but they shouldn’t look shrivelled. Remove their tough stems before cooking.

    • Chanterelle mushrooms are wild, and wildly expensive. Make sure that you pick carefully. The stems often hold water, so give them a gentle squeeze to eliminate extra weight before paying.

    • Truffles, unless you have the opportunity to pick them yourself in France, can only be found at very fine grocers and specialty stores.

    • Morel mushrooms are available fresh in the spring and summer. You can get the same great flavour by using dried ones all year round.

    • Don’t be too concerned with the brown specks you often find on mushrooms. It’s usually peat moss.

  • The best way to store loose mushrooms is to keep them in the refrigerator either placed in a loosely closed paper bag wrapped in a damp cloth, or laid out in a glass dish that is covered with a moist cloth.

    • Either method will help them preserve their moisture without becoming soggy and will keep them fresh for several days.

  • Mushrooms that are purchased prepackaged can be stored in the refrigerator for up to one week in their original container.

Other Considerations

  • Instead of spending a lot of money on the more exotic mushrooms, buy a few and then mix them with buttons or criminis. The cheaper mushrooms will take on the flavour of the exotic mushrooms.

  • You can also buy truffle oil for sautéing regular mushrooms, which adds a more exotic flavour.

  • Buy dried mushrooms, especially more expensive wild varieties, to get the same flavour. You can mix in a small amount with buttons or criminis for a big punch of concentrated flavour. Also, you don’t have to worry about your pricey ingredients going bad.

  • If you want to pick your own wild mushrooms, arrange an outing with experienced mushroom hunters. Many wild mushroom organizations have excursions for the public.

  • Wild mushrooms are seasonal and different varieties come into season at different times of the year.

  • Uncooked mushrooms provide protein, vitamins, minerals and dietary fibre. They are also sugar-free and contain only about 20 calories per cup.

Be Aware

  • If you’re picking your own and aren’t sure what it is, don’t eat it! Mushrooms can be deadly poisonous, and there are some edible and poisonous mushrooms that look very similar to the inexperienced eye.

TEST CRITERIA

We selected a variety of mushrooms commonly used in cooking and salads. Prices noted fluctuate seasonally. We invited some friends to help us taste these mushroom varieties, lightly sautéed:

  • Button: $2.99/lb
  • Criminis/Italian Brown: $2.99/lb
  • Portobello: $5.99/lb
  • Oyster: $6.99/lb
  • Shiitake: $6.99/lb
  • Chanterelle: $18/lb

Taste Test

  • From the mild button to the distinct Portobello, they all offer something different.

  • Our testers definitely found the shiitake to be the strongest tasting, a little too “mushroomy” for some with its chewy texture.

OUR TOP PICK

With such a variety of mushroom flavours, they are great on their own or as savoury additions to any dish. Don’t be afraid to try out new varieties. Just be sure, if you’re picking your own, that you know what you’re doing!

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